Sister Sarah Margaret Furnifull

A World War I nurse remembers

When the minister from a nearby town dropped in one weekend to ask my mother if she could spare one of her daughters to do some work in the local hospital I little thought it would lead to me journeying to the other side of the world and becoming involved in the greatest war the world had ever seen.
Sister Sarah Margaret Furnifull 1916
Sarah Margaret White (nee Furnifull)
Australian Women's Weekly 31 October 1973, page 41,

Sarah Margaret Furnifull was born in Albany, WA, in 1887. Her family subsequently moved to NSW where she began her nursing training in Kempsey in 1903, at the age of 16. Margaret came to Sydney to further her training at the Coast Hospital in 1906. Upon graduation in 1909 she signed up for the Australian Army Nursing Service. She served on the front line during World War I. 

In 1973 Sarah told her story to the Australian Women’s Weekly. 

This is an edited extract. The full story can be viewed on Trove.

I was 16 [in 1903], the third of a family of eight children, and had lived a happy childhood on my parents’ cattle property near Kempsey, on the north coast of N.S.W. The day after the minister’s visit, my sister took me to town in a sulky to interview the matron and thus I started my nursing career. It was the Macleay District Hospital. There were only three or four nurses apart from Matron, and I was paid seven shillings and sixpence a week. 

Four Furnifull sisters became nurses: From left-Frances, Sarah, Jane & Annie. (1914)
Four Furnifull sisters became nurses: From left-Frances, Sarah, Jane & Annie. (1914)

Diphtheria was very prevalent in those days and the isolation ward was 60yds. from the hospital. They were very busy nights running between wards. We had a number of typhoid fever patients too, as it was before the inoculation. It was very useful to me in later years to have had the experience of nursing typhoid.

After three years, when I was old enough to take on formal training in a city hospital, Matron urged me to do this. She told me I had the makings of a nurse. So, with regret, I left the place where I had been so happy. I met my first love there, but absence made his heart grow fonder of the girls who took my place… 

I look the steam ship to Sydney, there were no trains then, and after 24 hours of sea sickness you can perhaps guess how tired and lonely I felt when I arrived at Circular Quay. I was taken by horse-drawn ambulance to the Coast Hospital, now called Prince Henry Hospital. 

Matron interviewed me and spelled out the instructions and rules. There were many “thou shall nots” but I was thankful for my previous experience. The senior nurse took me to my ward and she did not help at all by saying the Sister in charge didn’t like fat nurses. 

My starting pay was four shillings and eight pence a week–less than I was getting at my first job. I had to work 12 hours on one day and ten the next, with one day a month off. The first year was spent scrubbing white pine lockers and tables, attending to patients’ food and needs, taking temperatures and pulses, learning to do and apply foments and poultices, and of course attending lectures and studying.

We all had our ups and downs, naturally. I remember one new nurse being told to sweep the verandas, meaning those belonging to her ward. After two hours she was found crying at the end of half a mile of verandas. She had swept four on each of the eight wards.

I had my own veranda adventure. I was walking along one on a gusty day and was blown off by a gale from the ocean. It was about 5ft. from the ground and I broke my ankle. No one saw me fly off and didn’t know what happened until I hobbled into a ward grimacing in pain.

Second year was spent mostly in infectious wards, and we would often get a chance to do ambulance duty. Two dear old horses pulled the ambulance, and this to me was a real holiday. 

Once I was chosen among a dozen other nurses to go to the quarantine station to look after the smallpox patients who had come in on a ship.

In the third year we got a rise to ten shillings a week and fell quite rich. That year we spent mostly in surgical wards. One day there was great excitement at the hospital when the man Chidley was brought in. He was a well-known Sydney eccentric who used to stand in Pitt Street, clad only in his beard and a tussore silk shirt, selling copies of his book, “The Answer”. We nurses wondered if Chidley would have his pants on when he was brought in. He did and we were so disappointed!

In the fourth year nurses were mostly in charge of wards and did general work. We took care of special cases and worked in the operating theatres. The years had really flown and now exam time was upon us. Thankfully I got through to Graduation Day. At last the pride of being able to wear the Sister’s cap and a salary of 30 shillings a week.

Upon graduation in 1909 Sister Furnifull accepted a position as assistant matron at the tuberculosis sanatorium in Waterfall. After that she worked at Berry Hospital but was then called up to active duty at the outset of World War 1. 

I had volunteered to join the Australian Army Nursing Service as soon as I received my sister’s certificate. Early in 1915 I was asked if I would be prepared, along with 19 other nurses, to fill vacancies in Queen Alexandra’s Imperial Nursing Service as an Australian unit. I was happy to be part of this unit and we set sail in the hospital ship Karoola.

After a very seasick trip we disembarked at Suez, and were taken on to Cairo in a very dirty hospital train carrying typhoid cases. After a week there we joined a New Zealand hospital ship, Nevassa, which look us to Naples to join the [hospital ship] Britannic. The Britannic was waiting there for smaller vessels bringing wounded soldiers from the Dardanelles. She was a sister ship to the Titanic, which had recently been sunk. The Britannic had been hastily refitted as a hospital ship and was very unfinished and rough.

I don’t know how many troops were on board–hundreds I’m sure–some wounded or sick and a lot of walking cases. We were put on duty and ordered always to have life belts handy, as the Germans had vowed they would sink the Britannic. It was a very frightening trip.

We landed safely at Liverpool and were ordered to report to a military hospital at Rubery, near Birmingham. On her return journey to Naples the Britannic was sunk, and two of my nursing friends were lost.

Our train went to Birmingham but we were told it wouldn’t be going as far as Rubery, some miles along the line. So we refused to get out…, and demanded to be taken on.

“We’re Australians, you know!” we told the officials. “We can see you’re Australians.” they answered. But we won the day. They took the train on to Rubery, where they practically chucked us out. 

We staged another revolt while at the hospital. There seemed to be no plans to send us to France and we feared we would be used to replace English nurses who wanted to go. So we protested to the Australian High Commissioner in London, Mr. Andrew Fisher. We took up a petition and pointed out that we had come from Australia to serve with the Army. Finally it was arranged for us to go.

At this point I came down sick myself with typhoid, which I had apparently contracted on the dirty hospital train from Suez to Cairo. I was put in isolation for three weeks at Rubery, and was very glad I had my Australian friends to look after me, as I didn’t have a great deal of confidence in the English nurses’ ability to tend typhoid.

I was not fully recovered when the orders came to go to France, but I refused to leave the unit and went on with them to London. There we received our uniforms and kit and sailed for Boulogne. We went then to a base hospital at Camier, near Etaples. where a camp of Australians had just been set up. 

Now came the time for our unit to be broken up. We had become very close but now had to be sent individually to clearing stations. I didn’t come in contact with any of the other girls again. Clearing camps didn’t stay long in any one place. We were always on the move, either forwards or back. They were busy times. 

I remember the Somme with the mud, duck boards, and the nearer sound of guns. We were in tents with dugouts deep enough to take the camp beds so we would be out of shell fire. We wore only burberry coats and gum boots now, and tin hats and at times gas helmets. 

Sometimes a mail would come in. One would wonder where it was from and it was a great thrill to get letters from home. Occasionally a parcel of sugar or sweets would arrive but one got used to the army biscuits and bully beef.

Most of the time it was just hard work. There would be a respite in the fighting and then another battle and a rush of wounded to attend to. We would work round-the-clock, and just go on as long as we had to. There were terrible wounds. It was a dreadful war.

At Christmas, 1916, a friend and I were given seven days leave and we went to London. But we missed the boat train and were a day late back to the casualty clearing station. Nothing was said but I was sent to a base hospital, apparently as punishment. I was upset about this but was pleased to see the lovely little spot Etretat. It was a beautiful tourist resort, and all the patients were housed in luxurious hotels. The operating room was a casino. 

After two months there my punishment was evidently over, and I was put on a hospital train. This was a heartbreaking time. There was little anyone could do for the soldiers except give sedatives and drinks. The train was so slow. We would travel up and down the lines, picking up the wounded from clearing stations. The bunks were packed closely together on top of each other and you couldn’t get near enough to the sick and dying to give them any attention.

After a month I was posted to another clearing station, but this one didn’t last long. We had to retreat at very short notice, walking some miles before an ambulance met us. Only the patients who could walk were able to go with us–we had to leave the rest behind. We wondered what happened to the poor fellows.

The ward in Le Havre where Sarah Furnifull helped treat patients using the "Carrel Dakin" method (1917)
The ward in Le Havre where Sarah helped treat patients using the "Carrel Dakin" method (1917)

I was sent back to headquarters for a few weeks and my next move was a strange and unexpected change. A Scottish medico had asked for me to be relieved so I could go to a hospital at Le Havre to learn a new treatment for the dreadful wounds from gas gangrene. Two French doctors had developed the treatment, which was called “Carrel Dakin” after them. A ward of 30 patients was kept on the treatment and it really was a miracle. I was honoured to be able to share in it.

Now came another adventure. We were to report to a Railway Transport Officer for orders. After 46 hours of train travel we arrived at the station to find there was no one to meet us. We waited for hours, not knowing where to go or what to do, when a staff officer drove by and said he was going to the same destination. He drove us a short distance when the sound of guns began getting louder and louder. … finally, I piped up and asked if we were on the right track. He answered with some embarrassment that he didn’t think we were. 

Then a car came speeding towards us from the direction we were heading, with the occupants waving their arms and singing out “Get back!” It didn’t take us long to do so. When we eventually got to a French hospital for refuge, we learned the Germans had been occupying the hospital to which we were going for the past three days.

We were with the French more than a week. I was reported missing, causing my folks at home great anxiety. After returning to base four nurses and myself, four orderlies, and two medical officers made a hurried move in an ambulance to the Champagne district Epernay.

The wounded there, two or three hundred of them, were in a hotel. We were bombed every night and spent most of the time in the cellars, where wine seemed in plenty. Suddenly a train arrived, all the wounded were taken away, and we, the staff, were off in an ambulance, again destination unknown.

We arrived at a huge place that was a mental institution before it was evacuated.

This was at Villers Bretoneux.

A battle had been raging for hours or days, I don’t know which, and the dead were still on the field and the wounded in rooms or in the garden.

So far we were the only staff but some stretcher bearers and ambulance men helped us. It was a dreadful sight and we were helpless to do much. We just kept going, doing what we could for three days and nights, until help came.

I had taken part in retreats before but this was the beginning of the advance. Our medical unit followed on every few days. But I missed the first move. The night before we were due to go. and after the patients had been taken away one of the sisters produced a bottle of cherry brandy. She poured me a mug full and I greedily drank it. I went out like a light, and was last asleep for three days. We had advanced miles when I came to. The Captain said they couldn’t leave me behind, so they put me in the last load with the privy. I don’t know if that was true but anyway I woke fine and dandy and ready to carry on. I think the rest did me good!

We moved every few days, hearing more gun fire each day, seeing the troops marching into the trenches and only some coming out. We crossed the Hindenburg line and went through the dreadful germ-infested area where Germans were said to have died like flies.

We were only a few miles from where the Armistice was signed, and I vividly remember the silence on the 11th hour of the 11th day. All the guns stopped firing. We were hysterical, laughing and crying. But it was quite peculiar, we didn’t feel much like celebrating. Only crying. That night in my tent 18 men died of pneumonic flu.

We moved on to Cologne and I asked to be relieved as my mother was sick and I was anxious to get home. … The trip took nearly three months and I arrived in Sydney to find my mother had died of flu the day before.

A few weeks after my return I accepted the position of Matron at Muswellbrook Hospital. It was strange coming back to a civilian hospital but I soon settled down to the routine. It was a good hospital with 50 to 60 beds, and we had three trained nurses and five probationers. I was there for seven happy years. I had a little T-model Ford and sometimes went out into the country with the nurses. There I met my last love, got married, and lived happily ever after

Sarah Furnifull married Bruce White at Newcastle Cathedral on 1 March 1927.

She was just one of many Coast Hospital nurses who served during WWI. The Australian Nurses War Memorial Chapel commemorates the service and sacrifice of all Australian nurses during war time.